Guest Post: Brad Trent's Ocean Master Session

I'm back in Maryland, decompressing from a 12,531-mile road trip and getting my next few shoots lined up. Fortunately (and to give me a few days to get back into the swing of things) we have one more guest blogger: Brad Trent, who is pictured at left.

Not only was Brad the subject of the most widely read post on Strobist in 2010, but he has uncorked what can only be characterized as a Magnum Opus of a guest post today. Even broken into two parts, it is ... significant.

Part one, chock full of no fewer than 22 process images, inside.

DH Note: Pics open to a larger version. Links to Brad's site and a comprehensive Flickr set (including more BTS pics from this shoot) at the end of the post.

Ocean Master, Behind The Scenes

An interesting by-product of me doing my Song of the Day is how I began meeting and shooting more and more indie music artists. But if you know anything about the music biz these days, you gotta know that's not exactly the smartest way to fill your bank account. And while it's awfully easy to find a photographer who will self-righteously exclaim, "I didn't get into photography for the money!", God knows how true that is if you're one of those guys who makes the decision to focus on the music business as your object of creative desire.

I'm old enough to remember the day when shooting an album cover was a plum assignment, both creatively and financially. But in these days of iTunes and file-sharing and there being more indie bands per square foot than bedbugs in New York City, photographing musicians is now considered a labour of love and not necessarily a profitable business decision.

Case in point, the shoot I recently did for Australian singer/songwriter Nadia Ackerman's new album package. Nadia was in the process of finishing her second album, The Ocean Master, and came to me with an idea for the album cover.....a rather BIG idea!

She needed portraits for promotional use, but to illustrate the 'ocean' theme, for the cover she wanted to be photographed floating in water. Keep in mind that it's the middle of winter in New York and we have no budget. But since I'm always up for a challenge, if I figured a way to make it work, it could be something pretty cool for the portfolio.

I originally thought to shoot at an indoor pool, but after a few phone calls I got sick of hearing about liability issues and extremely high location fees. So I would need a studio...preferably with ground floor access because of the whole water thing...and it would hafta be cheap because of the whole no budget thing! I called in a few favors and managed to get a prime space at Industria, but still had to figure out how to cheaply build a tank big enough to float somebody in.

I quickly figured the least expensive and simplest answer would be to buy a kiddie pool...a really BIG kiddie pool! A little googling later and I came up with 15-foot version of one of these for about $125.00. Next came trying to negotiate with my assistants for a flat fee for what was certainly gonna be a really long day.

Finally, because I knew she had been to many of Nadia's shows and might wanna help out, I enlisted my friend and Photo Director Ronnie Weil to act as a (free!) producer/stylist/caterer/art director/all-round-wrangler. Thank God she said yes, 'cuz I was already up to my ears just trying to figure out the photo end of things!

We arrived at Industria at 7:30am and immediately set up the pool at the far end of the studio, put the hose in...

...and using the flow-rate charts on the City of New York's Public Works website, we estimated that it should have taken about 3-3.5 hours to fill around 1500-1800 gallons which would give us time to concentrate on the portraits. More on that pool-filling estimate later.

My original inspiration for the first portrait came from seeing Nadia in concert, where she stood in a simple, off the shoulder black dress lit by a lone spotlight...

With Nadia in the makeup chair we set up the lighting on the white cyc.

Nothing too outrageous -- a 20" Profoto Beauty Dish w/grid for the main light and a small Chimera Super-Pro strip light to throw a slash of light onto the white background. I wanted to cut the background lighting right down the middle -- light on one side/dark on the other. So we used a 4'x8' gator foam 'book' to cast a shadow from the strip light. To create a sharp-edged shadow across her shoulder, we put a black card between her and the Beauty Dish.

After dialing in the grey-balance and checking our sharpness, we were ready to shoot...

The final image:


One shot down. Let's go check on that pool!

For a very quick set change, I wanted to do a few ring light portraits. Not only would it keep things simple, but there is probably nothing more flattering than a ring light! We hoisted a 15' x 20' piece of black velvet and went to work...

(Note: the strip light is only there so I had some light to focus's not firing)

Liking what we see...

...and the final image:

We were going to move onto the next setup, but I thought that if the ring light was looking this good on black, why not try it on white as well?!! So we dropped the velvet, fooled around with the grey balance to 'blue' things up a bit and went back to frying Nadia's eyeballs with that ring light.

And we had a lighter, more open and fun version of the shot...

How's that bloody pool doing?!!

Now here's your Low-Budget Tip-Of-The-Day: IKEA is your friend!

I regularly hit IKEA for all sorts of props, and for this shoot I fond a bunch of really great fabrics that I planned to use for backgrounds, including these rolls of sheer orange curtain material that I knew would look great with a color-blocked dress we had chosen.

Overlapping the panels gave me layers that I could position Nadia between and was also very graphic. We backlit the white cyc with four Elinchrom 500 units, a couple of small strips to rim-light her and the main light was a 6' open-faced Octalight.

The finals:

And by turning off one side of the back lights, it got even more interesting:


Remember that estimate about how long it should take to fill that pool? Well, it was now almost 3:30PM and the pool was still filling. So we decided to do one last portrait using more fabric I found at IKEA -- this time with Nadia in a killer Gaultier dress slapped up against some deep purple silk drapery panels.

Lighting was pretty simple: a ring light with the diffuser, that open-faced Octa over my shoulder to add even more shine to the fabric and the Beauty Dish kinda ominously lighting her from down low.

Which gave us these:


NEXT WEEK ... in Part Two...The Pool Awaits!!!


How to Stalk Brad

If you are into lighting, you should definitely tune into Brad's channels. First, his portfolio includes lots of portraits that include the lighting setups (see "artificial portraits"). Second, his blog is a pretty steady stream of on-assignment-style posts. And third, his Twitter stream will keep you automatically tuned in for fresh content on the other two channels.

Lastly, here's that 70-photo BTS set from the shoot on Flickr.

Next: Brad Trent: Ocean Master Pt. 2


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Blogger Joe G. said...

Great post Brad. Your use of specular light and Ikea props is inspiring.

April 25, 2011 10:54 PM  
Blogger Brute said...

Simultaneously overwhelmed and inspired. Gives me much to think about. Thanks for having him contribute!

April 25, 2011 11:23 PM  
Blogger Jeffn said...

Brad has to be one of my favorite artists to follow. I enjoy his music plugs (and have bought CD's from his song of the day series). His dynamic lighting and of course his willingness to share such in depth background info is unrivaled.

Great post as usual!

April 25, 2011 11:56 PM  
Blogger Maryke said...

What a beautiful subject! FANTASTIC PHOTOS, fascinating to read how you created the effects!

April 26, 2011 3:53 AM  
Blogger MarcWPhoto said...

Just curious: while it is easier to get forgiveness than perission,etc,etc, did you do any checking to make sure the location's floor could handle the weight of the water?

For those of you who aren't geeks about this kind of thing, if the pool had 1500 gallons of water in it it weighed around six tons full. For perspective a modern mid-size four door sedan weighs around a ton and a half.

April 26, 2011 10:44 AM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said...

MarcWPhoto worried: "...did you do any checking to make sure the location's floor could handle the weight of the water?"

Yeah...I knew that we were kinda limited to ground-level spaces with reinforced concrete floors, not just because of the weight, but we also had to get rid of all that water (actually closer to 2500 gallons in the end!) once the shoot was done, but you're getting ahead of yourself...David will post all those fun details next week...


April 26, 2011 12:38 PM  
Blogger Peter Arboine said...

am i the only one who thinks the images are a little un inspiring? im sure he is a fantastic photographer, but the lighting in many of them seems blown out & flat (judging from the set-up i would have expected something more dynamic) not being a huge critic at all, just my opinion.

April 26, 2011 1:09 PM  
Blogger MarcWPhoto said...

Sorry, didn't mean to spoil the story! I just wanted to make sure it came up. :)

I once worked in a place where somebody moved a piece of equipment when they weren't supposed to. It was fine where it was but by moving it, they put about a ton of steel over an unreinforced floor section. It didn't break through, but it was a near thing.

April 26, 2011 1:12 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I'm sure those pool photos will be great but considering the hassle of the pool, that 'Flood' filter by Flaming Pear does a good job.

April 26, 2011 8:34 PM  
Blogger signups said...

let me guess.once you had filled it you had no way to empty it? heh

April 27, 2011 9:31 AM  
Blogger Ed Verosky said...

I love the sets, gadgets, and tech as much as the next guy. But I sometimes wonder how much all the trouble and grip is really that necessary. Could these images have been created just as easily without what went into putting them together? Are the images out of the ordinary, in any way? Of course, that may not be the issue in this context.

April 27, 2011 12:54 PM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said...

Peter Arboine opined: " i the only one who thinks the images are a little un inspiring?..."

Ouch...Pete...yer gonna hurt my feelings! Here's the thing about a BTS post like this...ignoring the actual photography for a second, in a lotta ways it's meant to show the sheer volume of stuff that can get done on a typical shooting day. We haven't even gotten to the real reason I was there that shoot the water shot for the cover...and I've already knocked out 5 separate portrait situations for the PR kit. As to whether you find them inspired or not, a lotta that comes down to personal taste, but you hafta remember that for a PR package you sometimes tone things down because the final use is essentially to get the performers image across and to give them a selection of different images that can be used over a multitude of posters, advertising fliers, online and email while a good PR session may not have the most 'inspiring' images, it has to give the artist enough stuff they can use over a long period of time. But let's go back and look at a couple of those images for a second...I dunno, but I really like this one...Nadia Closeup....not exactly flat or blown out. And when we shot this...Stripe Set/Cropped...we were always assuming it wold be cropped as it is here to use for performance posters and fliers, and it's not exactly what I would call 'flat' either. Now maybe you're talking about the couple of shots done with the ringlight...Black Set/Ringlight...and yes...definitely a bit blown out, but I kinda intended it to be that I said, it all comes down to personal taste.


April 27, 2011 3:03 PM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said...

Ed Verosky sounds concerned: "...I sometimes wonder how much all the trouble and grip is really that necessary. Could these images have been created just as easily without what went into putting them together?"

I'm not sure I completely understand your question, but you can pare any shoot down to it's bare essential elements and simplify things, but in this case, why would I? I'm in a great studio with two assistants and all sorts of toys and the simple truth is, a lotta those toys just make shooting easier! I've never been one to go out and slap together my own DIY's much simpler to fire up a pricey Profoto number that I know will give me repeatable & consistent results. Do I need to use heavy C-Stands and grip heads and shoot on a hard cyc when regular stands and white seamless will do the same thing? No...but it's a lot quicker and usually more fun to have the high-end option available. Hell...guys like David and McNally have dialed in shooting with SB-900's so well I'm sure they could duplicate everything I did on this shoot quite easily, but that's not how I roll. I have, for a long time, been tethered to this type of photographic style and I doubt I'll be changing any time soon. I would love to think like David or Joey L or Zach Arias and be able to quickly (and cheaply) crank out lighting setups like they do.....maybe I should have gone to one of the FlashBus shows?!!

April 27, 2011 3:21 PM  
Blogger Peter Arboine said...

i have eaten my words :) well explained sir!

April 27, 2011 3:55 PM  
Blogger Louis-Philippe said...

Note on the filling of the pool.

Brad, first off, amazing and very educational post!
Back to the pool.. your estimated time might not have been to far off, except that..

when you keep the hose lying on the bottom of the (any) pool, the rising water will put pressure on the water coming from the hose. This will slow the flow in a significant way and increasingly so as the water keeps rising. Until it stops. And it doesn't take much pressure to stop the flow entirely. Just imagine how easily you can put your thumb to the hose :)

so, next time, keep that hose out of the water and let the water fall into the pool.

kind regards,

April 27, 2011 6:04 PM  
Blogger Ynad said...

Damn ugly photography, I like it.
Thank for extra images, lovely texture.

April 27, 2011 6:45 PM  
Blogger Ed Verosky said...

@damnuglyphotography: "... you can pare any shoot down to it's bare essential elements and simplify things, but in this case, why would I?"

Answer: Why wouldn't you? Simplify it, I mean. And I'm not talking about the quality of your gear. I'm all for using the best gear you have lying around.

My rhetorical question was more an observation on the practice that many photographers have of creating images that really don't justify the gear, costs, time, locations, or effort put into them.

I do think some people will see the show going on behind the scenes and convince themselves that the photographs they see coming out of it are as good as that show. But the photographs often suffer from that lack of simplicity. But, as you said to Peter, it all comes down to personal taste.

April 27, 2011 11:41 PM  
Blogger Chuck said...

Nice photos and commentary from the photographer. I do think in this case I might have considered the excellent Flaming Pear 'Flood' filter before dealing with that pool.

April 28, 2011 9:40 PM  
Blogger Alonzo Riley said...

damnuglyphotography said: in a lotta ways it's meant to show the sheer volume of stuff that can get done on a typical shooting day.

Your defense is quantity over quality?

I'm trying to be polite, but you seem quite defensive. If you want to improve your craft I find it's better to encourage people who are honest and brave enough to make an actual criticism and leave the fanboy ranks.

April 29, 2011 12:27 PM  
Blogger Wally said...

Brad . . nice work.Can't wait to see the pool stuff. Seems to me the challenge is meeting the expectations of the client by applying your knowledge of how your tools work with that objective in mind. The artistic tastes of the Photographer, when working for a client are subordinate unless given license.

If all you have is a hammer, then all the world is a nail. You have a nice set of tools that you use with pluck and imagination. No shame in that.

Based on what I've seen, you do a great job. I'm learning.

May 02, 2011 10:48 PM  

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